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Inside the conservation lab: restoring gilded frames

July 16, 2014

Gilded picture frames are some of the most common objects treated in Historic New England's conservation lab. Frames are not just displays for works of art; they are works of art themselves. They are usually made of several different materials, including wood, gesso (a paste made of chalk and animal glue), compo (a moldable putty made of chalk, rosin, animal glue, and oil), bole (colored clay), and gold. Because each of these materials reacts differently to changes in humidity and temperature, frames are easily susceptible to damage.

Gilded Frame AT 35.1972
After treatment the frame looks as good as new.

The elaborate oval gilded frame shown here (click the images to enlarge) houses a pastel portrait and hangs in the hallway of Josiah Quincy House in Quincy, Massachusetts. In addition to cracks in the gilding, the frame was missing parts of its ornate decoration. Because the decoration on the frame is symmetrical, Historic New England's conservators were able to recreate the missing pieces.

First, a preparatory drawing was made using the intact other half. Then the pieces were sculpted out of epoxy putty. The pieces were attached with a conservation-grade adhesive, then coated with black paint in imitation of the black bole on the original. Finally, real gold leaf was applied to the pieces, followed by toning with paint. After conservation, the frame is whole and attractive again.

Come learn more about this treatment and others at Conservation Close-Up at Quincy House on Saturday, July 19.

Support the preservation of Historic New England's one-of-a-kind collection with a gift to the Collections and Conservation Fund.



conservation grade adhesives

Posted by Lauren Davis on August 13, 2015
I read your article about restoring gilded frames. One of the museums where I work is looking into restoring gilded molding on a late 19th century pier mirror. I'm wondering what "conservation grade adhesive" you used on your collection items.

Conservation grade adhesive

Posted by Alex Carlisle, Supervising Conservator at Historic New England on August 13, 2015
Hi Lauren,
A very good question indeed. The short answer is that conservation grade adhesives are selected for their longevity and reversibility. These issues are so important for conservators because much of our work seems to be correcting old repairs, and that means removing old glues and adhesives. Most glues and adhesives fail on one or both categories, either they begin to degrade and deteriorate over time, or they are, or become, less and less reversible, meaning that they cannot be easily removed with solvents that are safe for the surrounding original surfaces. Conservators choose the products that are used in direct contact with original material very carefully to ensure that the original materials are not compromised or damaged during, or as a result of, treatment.

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Inside the conservation lab: restoring gilded frames